Sunday, October 28, 2012

Inside vs. Outside: the Modern Chinese Battle of the Sexes

Last week I discussed the late imperial Chinese family in The Story of the Stone, a family that was wealthy and prominent. Many of the patterns described in the novel are similar to average Chinese families. One of my former professors has done historical research on the families of the coastal areas in Fujian Province. She found that the men would go out to work on long sea voyages, trading and doing business in Southeast Asia. While the men were working “outside,” the women would manage the family’s holdings and businesses “inside” China proper. Anthropologists studying the Hakka subculture historically and across Southeast Asia found that Hakka men would frequently travel long distances to find work, leaving their women in the family’s home town to raise the children, care for the elderly, and run the family’s farm and businesses there. The Hakka also have a dense concentration along the southeastern coastal regions in northern Guangdong Province and the mountainous regions of Fujian Province. I find it interesting that these two linguistic subcultures seem to give their women more equality in earning money because the Fujian and Hakka dialects are thought to be the oldest Chinese dialects. Perhaps their practices reflect the earlier more balanced view of women in Chinese culture.

As large clans break up and move off the family farms, these patterns are changing. When Ma and Pa were married, Pa’s eleven male cousins and their living parents, wives and children all lived in the three-sided family farm house up in the hills near Hsinchu. They shared much of the hill left to them by their ancestors with their distant cousins in the Upper House. The family had rice paddies, fruit trees, vegetable plots, and pig pens. The men and women worked in the rice paddies, and after the crops were planted, some of the men like Pa would go to the cities to work as laborers. While Pa was gone, Ma remained at the family farm caring for her elderly in-laws, raising her pigs for market (this was her own business), and raising her young children. Although the pigs were Ma’s, she was subject to the economic predations of her father-in-law, Grandpa Liu, who would frequently go into town and buy things for himself against the credit for that year’s pig. It drove Ma crazy because she never knew if there would be money to buy things for her children when she finally slaughtered the pig.

After Pa moved his family off the farm, he managed everything, and because Ma is illiterate, she worked for Pa at his construction sites when she had finished her household chores, which included washing in the creek behind the house all the laundry for her kids, her mother-in-law, her husband, herself, AND all of Pa’s apprentices, as well as cooking meals for 16 or 20 people three times a day over a wood fire. When I married into the family, several of Pa’s daughters were working at factories because Pa’s business could not support the family and pay his debts. Pa encouraged me to work part-time teaching English because it gave the family face to have a teacher among them and because it was reliable, well-paid work. Everyone contributed a certain amount to the communal pot, the amount of which was negotiated between each family member and Pa and Ma. The rest of the money that each person earned was theirs to spend or save as they pleased. Yuni was the only one who kept what he earned to himself. He would occasionally buy gifts or pay a bill, but as the heir-apparent, he would be supporting his parents in their dotage, and no one begrudged him his freedom early in life. (I think I was supposed to force him to pay into the communal pot, but when we were first married, I did not speak enough Hakka to understand that he didn’t have a separate arrangement with Pa to contribute to the household.)

Third Maternal Uncle ran his household much differently. He had 21 people under his roof. Three of his five sons were married, and their wives and children all lived with him. He controlled absolutely all of the money. His eldest daughter-in-law had been a nurse before she got married, but he forced her to quit her job and work together with her husband in the family business making banisters. Pa frequently berated Third Maternal Uncle for not sufficiently diversifying the family business interests. When I was first married, Pa was just recovering from bankruptcy, and Third Maternal Uncle was at the height of his power. Uncle did not even allow his children to handle money. He would give them small amounts of spending money before any function. In the end, this strategy did not work because when Third Maternal Uncle wanted to retire, his sons and daughters-in-law did not know how to handle money. I do not know all the details, but I know that Ma was quite sad about the situation in her brother’s family after they split into small households, and Pa felt fully vindicated in his criticisms of Third Maternal Uncle’s method of running a household.

I think that Pa and Third Maternal Uncle show two mindsets among traditional men facing the modern reality that women can get real jobs outside the home. Pa is more forward-thinking and pragmatic. He does not feel threatened in his masculinity to have his daughters and daughters-in-law working outside the family business. He personally ran his business for the benefit of his clan. After his debts were paid off and he had enough work, if any of his nephews needed work or when his sister’s husband lost his job, Pa gave them work at his construction sites. He was always grateful that Eldest Paternal Uncle had given his family rice from the family farm to keep them from starving during the worst of his bankruptcy problems. Ma says that the bankruptcy changed Pa a lot. I never knew him prior to the bankruptcy, but from the beginning of my marriage, Pa was accepting of working women and appreciated their contributions to the family. He would even call me and Elder Sister in to the men’s discussions to ask us our opinions about business or the world situation.

Third Maternal Uncle, on the other hand, did not want his wife to work after she had daughters-in-law. He had her dress up in fancy clothes with make-up and jewelry. He was an absolute authoritarian. He kept total control of all the money and did not even trust his sons. In the long-run, his daughters-in-law resented him and his “indolent” wife, and his sons racked up gambling debts instead of running the business properly after Third Maternal Uncle had retired. If the cousins’ wives had been allowed to keep their outside jobs, and if the sons had been given their own money to manage, I don’t think Third Maternal Uncle’s family would have gotten into quite the troubles as it has.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my time in the hospital caring for Elder Sister seemed to change the dynamics of the family. In one respect, it pushed the boundaries open to women because Elder Sister and I handled everything without much input from the men. Because I am well-educated, I could read the hospital chart on Elder Sister’s bed, which was written in English to preserve confidentiality. I could also converse intelligently with the doctors. My friend, the lawyer, is a woman, and so when I asked Wenzhu to consult with us, I did not need to bring in a male because women and their friends are all part of the realm of “inside.” Pa and Yuni had given Elder Sister carte blanche to speak for herself. With Pa’s blessing, I worked with her to find a way for her to keep her children and support them. Pa and Ma would come down at least once a week to visit, and we would report to them and discuss things with them. We did not, however, consult with the Liu family’s heir-apparent, Yuni. In the past, he was the most highly educated in the family, and as heir-apparent, he handled many of the family’s business matters, even when he was in elementary school. I believe that Pa and Ma saw my efforts as Yuni’s contribution through his wife, and because these things related to Elder Sister’s health and children and were handled among Eldest Brother-in-law’s business associates and my female friends, these things never left the realm of “inside.” And I believe that on a certain level, Yuni felt the realm of “inside” had expanded to a threatening extent.

Since China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th Century, there has been talk about the “yinification” of Chinese men. This means that Chinese men are seen as weak and unable to handle the challenges of the modern world. This kind of discourse continues in both Taiwan and China, as spoiled only sons have a hard time competing in the modern world. A friend of mine, who has worked long and hard in Japan raising money and founding shelters for victims of domestic abuse there, said that her perception of the situation in Japan is that the men went from a situation of complete privilege with respect to women to one in which women can own property, attend schools, and compete in the workforce. She asked me if I thought that Chinese men might not be facing the same crisis of identity. I believe that she is right. The realm of “inside” has broadened to include the “outside,” and educated, modern women are succeeding without any help from the men in their lives. To men who have been spoiled and pampered by mothers and grandmothers just because they could pee standing up, it must come as a rude awakening that the world does not revolve around them. Like Baoyu, many of them are adept at the use of the temper tantrum to get their way, and when as grown men they throw tantrums, domestic violence can result.

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